“Code Black: An influx of patients so great, there aren’t enough resources to treat them.”
After years of watching ER and Casualty, and hearing about US insurance issues, UK NHS cuts and the problems weighing down emergency healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic, treating the “not enough resources to treat patients” premise as an USP seems an oddly uninspiring choice to me: is that not a permanent state of play for US and UK public health care? On tv, at least?
Apparently not. According to the opening titles of this “new” hospital drama, a ‘Code Black’ happens an average of 5 times a year in US emergency rooms, but 300 times a year at the one on which this show is based. So, hey, sometimes there are enough staff and resources – yay! “Code Black” taught me something new. Given the show’s fervent desire to recycle every hospital drama cliche you can possibly think of and make a second-hand ER for the new tv era, however, it’s unlikely to teach me or anyone else who watched the original ER, or indeed any hospital drama made since then, anything new ever again.
In itself, re-treading old ground doesn’t have to be a problem, of course. As I’m sure we’ve said before, ER was the template for the modern, super-fast, issue-laden type of hospital drama, and its influence is everywhere; its tropes and techniques have since become hospital drama cliches because they’re some of the most effective in the business. After all, few things get the heart or the tear ducts going like attractive, dynamic folk in scrubs running around saving/ not quite managing to save children/ old people/ loved ones, while not-so-dynamic other folk in scrubs watch/ learn/ mess up and canny support folk in yet more scrubs say wise/ snarky things for light relief. I mean, come on! This type of thing, done well, can be tv gold.
Code Black, however, is more like tv gold-plated.
It certainly looks the part; a muted rainbow of scrubs wheeling terrified patients around a nightmarish world of crowded, noisy trauma rooms, all under pleasingly dingy halogen lighting, with a giant doorbell for gang member drop-off convenience and an even more giant counter thing announcing it’s CODE BLACK time. GO TEAM!
Look past all that and listen to the dialogue, though, and it becomes clear this is less ER than E-number-type tv: from Nurse Jesse Salazar’s opening “I’m your Mama” talk to every word uttered by the main character Dr Leanne Rorish, the script is littered with completely artificial-sounding lines somebody thought sounded cool, but nobody in real life would ever actually say out loud.
On his own, Jesse could pass for kooky and even fun – using Bonnie Tyler lyrics as motivational speech is only to be encouraged, as far as I’m concerned – but Leanne is unfortunately unbearable. A composite of every cliche ever, she is – deep breath – a Straight-Talking, Rule-Breaking, System-Fighting, Self-Destructive Maverick with a Secret Pain, Consumed with Guilt and Self-Loathing who only Speaks in Soundbite: “We’re going to kill him to save him!” “Trepidation is a deadly quality in this place!” “If a Norwegian kid can’t breathe, it’s a pneumothorax!”
As Raza Jaffrey’s handsome, kind yet by-the-book, empathetic yet uptight, devoted to yet scandalised by Leanne,
Dr Khan Dr Neal – it’s (sort of) Leanne backwards! Because they’re opposites! – Hudson acknowledges: “Sometimes you gotta be a cowboy.” But Leanne is a cowboy all the time. Which is both deeply annoying and would get most people fired, but not in Code Black, oh no. Kevin Dunn’s joyously sardonic ER Chief Dr Taylor – he has the best lines in the pilot and is genuinely funny and likeable – and the unseen Hospital Board are astonishingly relaxed, nay borderline delighted, about Leanne repeatedly getting sued and risking lives to save them all over the place, but neither they nor poor Marcia Gay Harden can endear me to this character, and since she gets about 70% of the screen time in this first ep, that’s going to be a problem.
And a deeply frustrating one at that, since Code Black actually has a lot of decent things going for it, too.
The obligatory “residents on their first day” are a reasonable, if not yet inspiring mix: there’s the mature, sensible one; the cocky, insecure one; the self-pitying Daddy Issues one and the ambitious, talented one. They learn the standard lessons, make/miss diagnoses obvious to every member of the viewing audience…. usual type of thing. They wouldn’t necessarily make me switch on but they didn’t make me switch off, either – there’s potential there, even if Daddy Issues needs to buck up and shut up.
It was the delightful Dr Taylor, the irresistible Dr Hudson and the tiny wee girl meeting the equally tiny wee girl recipient of her Dad’s donor heart – look, I know, but I was in BITS – who sucked me in, though, in spite of myself. While Code Black does, at the moment, have the air of tv written by checklist and I spent the first half of the pilot rolling my eyes at it, I found myself enjoying it by the end. Time, work and real life will decide if I write about it again but, regardless of its flaws, I’ll still be watching.